Marin Alsop's tenure as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has been notable for several things, prominent among them the programming of compositions by Leonard Bernstein, her childhood idol and mentor when she was starting her conducting career in the 1980s.
Among the most sizzling performances the BSO has given with Alsop over the years have been those of Bernstein works — the genre-bending "Mass" and two of his three emotionally complex symphonies, No. 1, "Jeremiah," and No. 3, "Kaddish."
This week, Alsop focuses on his brilliant, often bracing Symphony No. 2, "The Age of Anxiety." It will be recorded live for release on Naxos Records.
"There's nothing by Bernstein that I don't really love," Alsop said. "And it's nice to be able to conduct most of it."
The Symphony No. 2, which premiered in 1949, takes its name, structure and emotional weight from an almost book-length W.H. Auden poem published two years earlier. Bernstein said he felt "breathless" after first reading the "hair-raising" text.
The poem captures World War II tensions and disillusionments through the eyes and minds of four lonely strangers who meet at a New York bar. (Auden gives the characters the wonderfully exotic names of Malin, Quant, Emble and Rosetta.)
Increasingly intoxicated, they ruminate on life, dreams, loss of faith. Eventually, they all head to Rosetta's apartment for a nightcap and, maybe, something more, but the effort to keep the party going fizzles. Dawn finds the figures heading their separate ways, once again alone.
"The poem is quite complicated," said Alsop, whose son is named Auden after the poet. "And the symphony is a pretty complicated work. It requires serious study. I don't know if it's essential to know the poem to get the piece, but it does help you get a deeper level of experience."
Bernstein laid out the symphony with movements corresponding to the six major sections of Auden's text. The music traverses various styles — lyrical, jazzy, atonal — and involves the intricate development of thematic kernels.
"I like that there is an amalgam of so many genres," Alsop said. "I like pieces that are non-conformist, not formulaic."
The most non-conformist thing about the score is that it contains a substantial, demanding part for piano. Bernstein, who performed the part at the premiere, described the soloist's role as "an almost autobiographical protagonist."
Tackling the assignment in the BSO performances will be stellar French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet.
"I knew a lot of Bernstein's music, but, frankly, I didn't know the symphony existed before I learned it in the middle or late-'90s. You can't know everything," Thibaudet said with a laugh. "I was really fascinated by it and loved it immediately. It is a difficult piece, but it really grows on you. I adore every chord of it."
Thibaudet sees continued relevance for a work subtitled "The Age of Anxiety."
"The situation hasn't changed much since Bernstein wrote this," he said. "There is still war, whether religious war or something else. This piece is definitely of our time."
The pianist has particular fondness for the work's jazzy side, which breaks out with startling energy in the penultimate movement, "Masque." "I'm always for anything that gives me a chance to do some jazz," he said.
Thibaudet will get additional opportunities this weekend, since the BSO program also includes Maurice Ravel's deftly jazz-inflected Piano Concerto.
"Jean-Yves playing Ravel — it doesn't get much better than that," Alsop said.The Baltimore Symphony performs at 8 p.m. Thursday at Strathmore, and 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Meyerhoff Hall.